Team of world renowned ocean experts collaborating with Pacific governments, communities and researchers to bring exploration spirit to protecting critical ocean habitats and the wildlife they shelter
Papeete, Tahiti (May 24, 2023)—Amid an escalation of threats to the ocean—from plastics and global warming to overfishing–National Geographic Pristine Seas today launched The Global Expedition, a bold new ocean venture. Building on their legacy of helping to establish 26 marine protected areas worldwide and generating hundreds of scientific studies and over 30 documentary films, they will spend five years exploring the remote tropical Pacific on a mission to support local conservation efforts in the world’s most diverse ocean ecosystem.
The National Geographic Pristine Seas team will work aboard their expedition-outfitted vessel, the E/V Argo, collaborating with central and western Pacific Island nation governments, communities, Indigenous and local people, and local marine scientists. Together they will study, document and identify the potential for expanded protections in waters crucial to the survival of what these countries call the Blue Pacific Continent. Ultimately, they hope to support the establishment of new marine protected areas, each with sustainable management and financing plans. The mission’s success is critical to a broader effort to fight global warming, food insecurity, and nature loss by protecting 30% of the planet by 2030 (30×30).
“The health of the tropical Pacific is an essential need for the people who live there and really to everyone on the planet, because the ocean is a key part of our life support system,” said Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer in Residence and the founder of Pristine Seas. “But that makes this mission an exciting opportunity to restore marine life and bring in more benefits to local communities and economies. We sail with hope because we have witnessed the amazing capacity of ocean life to heal itself—if we just give the ocean some space.”
As leaders in the study of the ocean, Pristine Seas brings the spirit of space exploration to a global effort to restore ocean environments that sustain life on earth. Argo is their Apollo explorer, their three-seater submersible, the DeepSee, is their equivalent of a lunar lander–though one that can descend deeper than the Eiffel tower is tall. Their “drop cams,” cameras encased in glass balls that travel six kilometers below the surface, function as deep space probes, and their BoxFish Luna, a remote operated robot, can explore the waters in between.
Pristine Seas’ science team has deployed these tools in some 40 locations from pole to pole, working from the surface to the deep in waters, some of which have never before explored by humans. Their relentless commitment has produced more than 250 peer reviewed studies that have upended long-held assumptions about marine ecosystems. They also have revealed the power of highly protected areas to rapidly restore depleted fish, coral reefs and kelp forests, benefits that also support the health of adjacent waters critical to local fisheries and tourist economies. The evidence already has inspired the creation of 26 marine protected areas encompassing more than 6.5 million square kilometers—an area two-thirds the size of the United States.
Now Pristine Seas is pointing the Argo to central and western Pacific Island nations, a region three times the size of the United States that supports earth’s greatest ocean biodiversity. The first phase of this new venture will cover 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles) in 2023 alone, exploring the ocean from the surface to depths of 6,000 meters (20,000 feet), and exploring waters at depths never probed by humans. In the first year of The Global Expedition, Pristine Seas is responding to invitations to collaborate with governments and communities in the Southern Line Islands, Kiribati; Tongareva , Cook Islands; Niue; Republic of the Marshall Islands; Federated States of Micronesia; and Palau, to help them to establish effective marine protected areas and support their sustainable use.
Pristine Seas has worked with Indigenous and local communities all over the world, supporting their conservation visions and helping local fishers protect their waters for generations to come. For example, the team is currently working with Inuit and First Nations in the Canadian Arctic and subarctic to support their efforts to create Indigenous marine protected areas, and with the Kawésqar people in southern Chile to protect their pristine fjords from the destruction and pollution created by industrial salmon farms. They also plan to foster a network of marine protected area managers and practitioners to facilitate and encourage sharing of experiences, challenges, and successes among communities, experts and scientists.
Their collaboration with Indigenous and local communities will continue on their Pacific expedition. They have already worked in the region with the Pitcairn Islands, Kiribati, Niue, and Palau.
“Every day our team will show the world the awesome beauty of this aquatic universe while providing scientific evidence demonstrating the value, for people and the planet, of protecting key areas in the tropical Pacific,” said Sala. “As scientists and storytellers who have spent almost two decades redefining our understanding of healthy ocean environments, we’re excited to be working with and learning from Pacific Island communities who for thousands of years have sustained these waters.”
Time Traveling in Ancient Seas, Revealing a Portal to a Better Future
Pristine Seas has redefined our understanding of life in the seas by spending years sending its divers, submersibles and cameras into waters at depths untouched by humans. Sala describes it as a form of time travel: it provides evidence of what everything from sharks and groupers down to the mix of microscopic bacteria and algae in the water—the ocean microbiome–looked like before humans interacted with ocean ecosystems. These observations have provided a scientific baseline for strategically using marine protected areas to revive and boost the productivity and resilience of our ocean.
Notable findings by the Pristine Seas team include the fact that sharks and other “apex predators”—which previously were not even mentioned in academic scientific literature in relation to reef health–—are essential to reef survival. Studies conducted by Pristine Seas have documented how their voracious appetites generate a constant turnover of life—something termed the “inverted biomass pyramid”– that keeps reefs resilient to stresses like coral bleaching events caused by global warming.
“Previous academic scientific studies missed the incredibly important role of sharks because the work was done in easily accessible areas that had been degraded or overfished,” Alan Friedlander, Pristine Seas’ Chief Scientist, said. “We removed this bias by going to very remote regions like the southern Line Islands or Chile’s Salas y Gomez Island and showing how a truly pristine, healthy ocean environment functions.”
Their work also has revealed the power of highly protected areas—where fishing is banned–to bring this past to the present. They have documented that fish populations in these zones can quickly surge by 500 percent or more in five to ten years. Their studies reveal how this rebound sets off a “cascade” of beneficial ecological impacts that restores the complexity of the entire ecosystem. These benefits are not seen in partially protected areas that allow commercial fishing.
But work by Pristine Seas has shown that fully protected areas can greatly improve the health of local fisheries in adjacent waters that are essential for food security, while also contributing to jobs and incomes through ecotourism. The team is now studying how the revival of sharks and other predatory fish in a protected area in the southern Line Islands enabled reefs to rapidly recover from an unprecedented and devastating 2016 “El Niño” ocean warming event, while reefs in unprotected areas did not.
In addition, research from Pristine Seas was the first in academic science to show that the amount of carbon released from the sea bed every year due to net dragging “bottom trawlers” equals the amount generated by the aviation industry. With this finding, there is now a potential to generate financial incentives via carbon markets that would encourage restricting their use.
“We’re eager to learn from people of the Pacific Islands and share all that we have learned with them as well,” said Friedlander. “These are descendants of people who were regularly sailing across thousands of miles of ocean waters at a time when much of the rest of the world was barely leaving land. They also have centuries of experience in using marine reserves and fishery closures to maintain healthy seas.”
As with their previous ventures, Pristine Seas is inviting the world to virtually come aboard for the entire journey. Their crew includes National Geographic filmmakers and storytellers who have produced several highly acclaimed documentaries. The upcoming mission will feature new capabilities for streaming live video, audio and data that will provide unprecedented real-time access to inspiring ocean exploration and cutting-edge science. The Global Expedition will be a platform for local communities to tell their stories to the world.
Thank you for the generous support of our funders, without whom our Global Expedition would not be possible: Bezos Earth Fund, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Lindblad Expeditions, Waitt Foundation, LGT – Venture Philanthropy, Dutch Postcode Lottery, Walmart Foundation, Don Quixote Foundation, Inclusive Capital Partners Foundation, Roger Sant, Philip Stephenson Foundation, Campbell Foundation for the Environment, Oracle Education Foundation, Heinz Family Foundation, Serventi Family Foundation and several individual donors.
About Pristine Seas
Pristine Seas works with Indigenous and local communities, governments, and other partners to help protect vital places in the ocean using a unique combination of research, community engagement, policy work, and strategic communications and media. Since 2008, our program has conducted 38 expeditions around the world and helped establish 26 marine reserves, spanning more than 6.5 million square kilometers of ocean.